Summer may be the prime time to drive up to the mountain town of Estes Park but it’s not ideal to battle the thousands of other people coming for the tranquility and beauty the mountains represent. Tourists today seem to echo John Muir’s musing that the mountains are calling and they are answering in droves. More and more people are finding their way to Estes from places as far away and exotic as Algeria and Taiwan. The small town has had to make adjustments — possibly sacrificing some of the charms — to continue to accommodate the growing crowds.

There is an option between the overcrowding of summer and the hurricane winds of winter. In Fall the visitors thin out as families return to school and normal life. The days stay warm and the nights bring the cooler crisp of changing leaves and pumpkin coffee drinks. Plus this is the time of year when weekends in Estes fill with festivals toting local brews, crafts and culture.

Take advantage of this shoulder season to explore Estes Park charms and quaint atmosphere.

The Basics

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Eats

A full breakfast is the best way to start the day — try Notchtop Cafe for the classics or Cinnamon’s for home-made cinnamon rolls. For lunch or dinner go to Smokin’ Dave’s BBQ, Ed’s Cantina or The Rock Inn — featuring live music most nights.

Drinks

Elkin’s Distillery is the first legal distillery in Estes. Order a flight to sample their products. Drink a brew at The Barrel while listening to live music or head to Rock Cut Brewing. Everyone needs their coffee so check out Inkwell & Brew or Kind Coffee.

Fun

To fill the in-between times, walk along the downtown Riverwalk with back-entrances to most shops, musical instruments for your playing pleasure and beautiful views of the Big Thompson River. The Stanley Hotel offers tours — for both the paranormally inclined and those not. If you’re up in town during the week go to the Tuesday night 5k and free spaghetti dinner. For $14 the Aerial Tram takes visitors up to the top of Prospect Mountain where views and a gift shop await. Drive the Peak to Peak Highway running between Estes Park and Central City.

READ: Best Hidden Hikes in Rocky Mountain National Park 

Shops

One of the oldest shops in town, Macdonald Book Shop has been open nearly 90 years. Watch the taffy being pulled in the window of the Original Taffy Shop — open since 1935 — and enjoy its flavor of the day. Opened in 1956, head to Brownfield’s for the obligatory souvenir T-shirt. Dick’s Rock Shop is a local favorite offering everything from geodes to crystals, onyx and lamps. The Mountain Shop has you covered on your favorite outdoor gear in their bargain basement.

Stay

There are plenty of accommodation options in Estes Park with over 150 lodges and hotels. For the all-out experience stay at The Stanley Hotel — opened in 1909 and a large part of how Estes became the town it is today. The newly renovated Ridgeline Hotel is within walking distance to downtown. Stay right on Lake Estes — within walking distance of the marina — at The Estes Park Resort. Silver Moon Inn is nestled in behind the Big Thompson River on the west end of the downtown strip. For the rustic cabin feel check out Nicky’s Resort and on-site Nicky’s Steakhouse Restaurant with a live pianist Fridays and Saturdays.

Events

View of Estes Park coming in on Highway 34. Photo by Jamie Palmesano

September 2 – 4

Estes Park will host its first ultra marathon the first weekend in September — the Estes Epic. To truly be Estes Epic complete the 50-mile bike race on Saturday and the 50-mile run on Sunday. If that sounds like too much there are lighter options. Try the 25-mile bike race or the 26.2 trail marathon.

The 18th annual Alpaca Market returns to the Estes Park Fairgrounds. Colorado has over 200 alpaca ranches and this free event gives you a glimpse inside. Here you can meet the alpacas, purchase raw fiber and yarns, learn how to weave and even make your own yarn.

The Labor Day Arts and Crafts Show has been a part of Estes for over 30 years. Get a unique, hand-made souvenir or connect with the vendor to shop later.

September 7 – 10

Known as the Celtic capital of North American Estes Park plays host to the Longs Peak Scottish-Irish Highland Festival. The event includes Highland games, music, dancing, drinks and plenty of kilts. Come ready for a party and be sure to wear your tartan to the parade — the largest Celtic parade in North America — on September 9.

Hallett Peak in fall. Photo by Jamie Palmesano

September 23 – 24

Celebrate the changing colors of fall at Autumn Gold – A Festival of Bands, Brats ’n Beer. Spend a day listening to local bands, dancing, eating bratwursts and drinking local brews. You’ll also find funnel cakes, fresh squeezed lemonade and a corn bag toss. The event is free but pay $25 for a raffle ticket and get a chance to win prizes of up to $5,000.

September 30 – October 1

As the Wapiti — the Native American name for elk — make their way down to lower elevations in the fall there almost seems to be more of them than people in town. Estes has a whole festival just for the town mascot. The Elk Fest coincides with the rut — the elk mating season — and features bugling contests, exhibits, music, dancing, a craft beer garden and elk inspired arts, crafts and activities.

Elk lounging in Bond Park. Photo by Jamie Palmesano

October 7

The Pumpkins and Pilsners Festival is the perfect place to enjoy a local brew and pick out a $5 pumpkin. Also enjoy tractor rides, pumpkin bowling, giant Jenga, a mini-bike course, hay bale jump, pumpkin decorating contest, food trucks and more. While in Estes walk the downtown strip and the Fall Celebration Sidewalk Sale where local retailers have specials right outside on the sidewalk.

If hard liquor is more your style check out the Whiskey Summit: Tasting Festival on October 17 which features over 40 distillers, live music, finger food and “Whiskey 101.”

October 20 – 21, 28: Twin Terror Weekends

The Historic Stanely Hotel — widely considered the most haunted hotel in America and the inspiration for Stephen King’s The Shining — takes full advantage of its scare appeal during the Halloween season. The Twin Terror Weekends start off with a Murder Mystery Dinner complete with a four course meal, wine and suspense that will have you so on edge you may forget to eat. The very next night come play at the Shining Ball with live music by the Gasoline Lollipops — costumes required. The weekends finish off with the Halloween Masquerade Party.

A bull elk in the Big Thompson River. Photo by Jamie Palmesano

One Response

  1. Kathleen

    We go every year in early Ocotober (I think at least last 10 years) as less crowds and fall colors. I will definitely try the Macdonald book store this year as one of the few places I have not been. Always go to Brownfields and get most of Christmas gifts. Quality and a just a fun people store!!!

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